Gabhair (Gavra, Gowra) To Glass-ben (Glass) (Celtic mythology and folklore)

Gabhair (Gavra, Gowra)

Irish mythological site. The great legion of warriors known as the fianna, followers of the epic hero fionn mac cumhaill, were almost invariably successful in battle. Even such warriors, however, finally meet their match, and so it was that the Fianna was finally routed at a great battle at Gabhair, said to be a plain near Garristown, Co. Dublin. The Fianna had grown arrogant and troublesome, so the high king cairbre Cinn-Chait decided to end their domination over the land. He was successful, but in doing so lost his life to Fionn’s grandson, the warrior oscar—who himself was killed in the battle.


Irish heroine. The giant woman Gablach was wooed by an equally huge man from Spain named Lutur. When Gablach’s family met her fiance, an army surrounded them and demanded battle, for the human hero Fuither had set his sights on winning Gablach’s hand. His violent suit came to naught, for Lutur picked up a roofbeam and brained several dozen soldiers, which excited Gablach so that she joined in the fight, killing Fuither in her energetic defense of her betrothed.

Gabriel hounds (Gabriel ratchets, gaze hounds, lyme hounds)

British folkloric figures.

In Britain spectral dogs (see black dog and pooka) were thought to disguise themselves as migrating waterbirds, especially wild geese, and to fly overhead barking in voices that sounded like birdcalls. When they circled over a house rather than flying straight on, it portended death or other disaster. The antique name "ratchet," meaning a hunting hound, shows that the belief is an old one, probably related to such fairy figures as the banshee and other foretellers of doom. The "Gabriel" to whom the hounds belonged is another name for gwynn ap nudd, the Welsh king of the otherworld, and does not refer to the Christian archangel.

Gae Assail

Irish mythic symbol. Ireland’s magical race, the tuatha de danann, had four treasures: an inexhaustible cauldron that was owned by the beneficent god dagda, the inauguration stone called the lia fail that stood on the royal hill of tara, the sword of the warrior king nuada that always found its victim, and the Gae Assail, a spear that returned to the hands of its thrower when it had finished its bloody business. If the thrower yelled the word for "yew" (ibar) while launching the spear, the result was certain death for the victim.

Gae Bulga (Bolga, Bolg)

Irish mythic weapon. The famous weapon of the Irish hero cuchulainn was given him by his teacher, the warrior woman of the Isle of Skye, scathach. The Gae Bulga seems to have been a spear or javelin (gae) that could slice through flesh, thus giving its bearer an immense advantage in battle. Cuchulainn used it to kill the two men most dear to him: his son connla and his foster brother ferdiad. Some scholars have derived the second part of the spear’s name from the fir bolg, one of the ancient mythic races of Ireland.

Gaheris (Gaheris of Orkney)

Arthurian hero. One of the sons of king lot of Orkney and morgause, the half-sister of king arthur who also gave birth to Arthur’s illegitimate son and implacable enemy, mordred. Gaheris was one of those whom lancelot killed as he rescued queen guinevere from execution by burning.


Arthurian hero. According to one text, the man who was later to be the father of the pure knight percival joined the army of the Caliph of Baghdad, where he single-handedly rescued a besieged queen, Belkane of Zazamanc, from two armies. Entranced with her savior, Belkane married him and bore a son, Feirefiz, but even the glories of her realm could not keep the warrior from returning to Wales, where he found another woman ready to be won through battle: the fair herzeloyde, who became Percival’s mother.


Irish hero. In some texts, this otherwise obscure figure is the son of the doomed lovers deirdre and noisiu.


Irish heroine. In the place-poems of ancient Ireland, the DINDSHENCHAS, this otherwise unknown woman is named as "learned and a seer and a chief druid," although how she composed and prophesied is unclear, because she never spoke a word. Yet it was Gaine who named the central hill of the land uisneach, "over somewhat," because her student, the powerful druid mide, had cut off the tongues of Ireland’s other druids, buried them on the hillside, and sat over them.

Galahad (Gwalchafed)

Arthurian hero. One of the chief knights of the round table, Galahad was the illegitimate son of lancelot and elaine of Corbenic. The young Galahad was king arthur’s perfect representative: the most pure, the most loyal, the most chaste of all his knights. As such, he offers a foil to the human and imperfect Arthur as well as to the noble but flawed Lancelot. Thus Galahad, in many Arthurian tales, became the one who found the mystical chalice called the grail, after which the knight was never seen again; apparently, the contact of his pure soul with the powerful vessel sent him instantly to heaven. Although his name may have Celtic roots, suggesting a falcon of battle, and despite his fairy heritage as the foster son of the lady of the lake and the son of Elaine, scholars agree there is no true Celtic analogue for this saintly figure; rather, Galahad seems a post-Christian invention grafted onto the legend’s pagan rootstock.

Galahaut (The Haute Prince)

Arthurian hero. A minor figure in the story of king arthur and his knights of the round table, Galahaut was at first Arthur’s enemy but, when the brave lancelot defeated him, converted to the side of camelot. So devoted was Galahaut to his erstwhile opponent that he died of grief when he heard that Lancelot had died.

Galatia Ancient

Celtic land. This area of central Anatolia (now Turkey), settled by Celts in the third century b.c.e., was mentioned by the Christian St. Paul in his epistles to the residents of the region.


Arthurian hero. The most outstanding knight of the round table, lancelot, had only one brother, Galehodin, who is otherwise obscure. A number of figures who surround Lancelot have similar names (galahad, galahaut), which may indicate that they derive from the same original.

Galioin (Gailioin, Galian, Galioin)

Irish mythological race. This tribe of Irish settlers of unclear heritage appears in two important mythological texts: the quasi-historical, the BOOK OF INVASIONS and the epic TAIN BO CUAILNGE. In the former they are described as part of the invading fir bolg people; in the latter, their fierceness so intimidates queen medb that she considers having them killed rather than risk keeping them as allies, but her lover fergus mac Roich convinces her that, separated and spread among the troops, they would be an invaluable asset, as they prove to be. They are thought to represent an early Celtic tribal group.


Breton folkloric figures. These historical druid women lived off the west coast of Brittany, on the Isle de Sein (Sena) near Pointe de Raz, at a site usually connected to legends of the dissolute pagan princess dahut and her city of ys. They are believed to have been a college of priestesses rather like the one thought to have served the Irish brigit, practicing divination and other forms of magic without intercourse, social or otherwise, with men.


Irish mythological figure. The name of the contemporary county of Galway derives from this obscure figure, said to have been a princess drowned in the river that bears her name. As the same story is told of two goddesses, s^nann and boand, it is likely that Galvia was once an important goddess of the watershed.

Gamh (Gam)

Irish mythological site. In Ireland’s Co. Sligo, a holy well was known in medieval times as one of the Mirabilia Hiberia, Ireland’s wonders. On the side of the hill of Tullaghan, opposite a sheer precipice, a half-salt, half-sweet well rises from a space among three flagstones. The well is now dedicated to st. patrick, and the story is told that it sprang up when the saint, pursuing the demon called variously the devil’s mother and caoranach, became thirsty and prayed for water, whereupon the well broke through the rock. Patrick then hid nearby until the demon, also thirsty, came to drink; her blood caused the well’s bitterness. The well’s pagan history can still be found in the common tale that it harbors sacred salmon, which, if caught and eaten, will nonetheless be seen frisking about the well the very next day.

The DINDSHENCHAS, Ireland’s place-name poetry, name the region around the well Sliab Gamh, the mountains of Gamh, after a servant of the milesian invader eremon. Gamh was beheaded, but whether in battle or as punishment for some wrongdoing is not clear; the corrupted text seems to indicate that Gamh was killed because of failure to observe agricultural rituals. His head, thrown into the well, caused its sweet water to turn salty part of each day.

Ganconer (gean-cannah, gan-ceann, gean-canach, love-talker)

Scottish and Irish folkloric figure. Maidens in Scotland were traditionally advised to stay away from lonely country roads, especially those in mountain areas, for they might meet this handsome fairy—readily recognizable by his clay pipe—who would make them promises so sweet that, after he evaporated from sight, the girl was left to pine away and die. The ganconer was the male version of the much more commonly found fairy lover or mistress.

The same figure was found in Ireland, where he was called the geancanach and was said to especially favor milkmaids. The Irish poet Ethna Carbery wrote of him: "Who meets the Love-Talker must weave her shroud soon," for his love was destructive. The word used to be applied to human men who were excessively boastful about their sexual prowess.


Irish hero. In the fenian cycle, we learn of this old warrior who the women of fionn mac cumhaill’s court feared might make advances to them; therefore they tied his beard and hair to the walls of their home while he slept. Awaking with a start, Garaid tore off his scalp trying to free himself and then exploded with fury, burning the house—at Drumcree, near Mullingar—with all the women in it and laughing sadistically as they died.


Mac Stairn Scottish folkloric figure. This Scottish giant appears in a legend of the Irish hero cuchulainn. Desirous of a bull that the hero owned, Garb traveled to Ireland but, reaching Cuchulainn’s house, found only a servant who claimed the house was empty except for his sick mistress. Nonetheless Garb demanded access to the house’s owner and pushed his way into the sickroom. There he found the woman, lying wanly, suckling a large babe. The giant poked his finger into the baby’s mouth and Cuchulainn—for the large baby was he—bit down so hard he struck bone. Garb and Cuchulainn then began to fight to the death, and it took a week for the superhuman hero to win against the fierce Scottish giant. A similar story is told of finn mccool, the folkloric version of the hero fionn mac cumhaill.

Gareth (Gareth of Orkney, Beaumains, Gaheriet)

Arthurian hero. A minor hero of Arthurian romance, he was the nephew of king arthur, son of his half-sister morgause and king lot of Orkney. Because of his most notable physical trait, kay named him Beaumains, "beautiful hands." Gareth was accidentally killed by his best friend lancelot, who was desperately struggling to save queen guinevere from the executioner’s flames.

Gargantua Continental

Celtic god. The great French satirist Rabelais based the most famous giant in French literature upon this obscure old Celtic god, perhaps originally named Gurgiunt or Gargam. A resident of the otherworld, he burst through occasionally to create landscapes by tossing around rocks or opening a cask so that floodwaters covered the earth.

Garravogue (Carravogue, Garbhog, Gheara-gain, Garrawog, Garragh-Maw)

Irish folkloric figure. Two similarly named hag-like beings appear in Irish oral folklore, both of whom may descend from the ancient goddess called the cailleach. In Co. Sligo, the River Garravogue was said to be named for a witch who fell into it and drowned; the same story is told of the maiden gile, whose drowning formed Lough Gill, so the two may have originally been the same figure in maiden and hag form.

In Co. Meath, and nearby Co. Cavan, the woman Garrawog broke the Sabbath by eating blackberries on the way to church, was turned into a giant serpent or cannibal, and dissolved when st. patrick threw holy water at her. In other versions of the tale, Patrick threw his apostolic staff at her, whereupon she split into four pieces, one going up into the air, two off to the sides into lakes, and the final piece disappearing underground beneath a large rock.

The fact that the hag split into pieces that travel to the four directions argues that Garravogue was an ancient goddess figure suppressed by Christian apologists, for cosmic goddesses whose bodies form the tangible world are often described in myth in this way. That the hag goddess was not entirely suppressed under Christianity is evidenced by the legend that Garrawog will rise again when enough people bearing her surname (Gargan or Garraghans) walk over her grave. A carved head in nearby Clannaphillip, once in the church but now installed behind the grotto of the Virgin Mary, is said to represent Garrawog.


Ancient Celtic land. The Celtic lands now generally contiguous with the nation of France, as well as adjoining lands now part of the nations Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland, were brought under Roman domination by Julius Caesar, who wrote of them in his Gallic Wars. It is from Caesar that we learn much of what is known about the culture and religion of the continental Celts. But as Caesar sought political domination over the Celts, it is difficult to evaluate his truthfulness. What we do know is that the people Caesar called Gauls were not a single tribe but many disparate tribal peoples who shared a common language and roughly common beliefs and customs.

As with other Celtic peoples, the Gauls are believed to have mixed and mingled with the people who inhabited their lands before them, probably Old Europeans. They later moved on to the islands off the coast, so that Britain and Ireland received a culture already changed by encounters with the indigenous peoples of Gaul. In addition, the Germanic tribes slightly to the north are not easily separable geographically from the Celts of Gaul, so that religion and culture on the Continent were both complex and dynamic. Much of that richness has been lost through the reinterpretation of continental Celtic or Gaulish divinities into Roman categories and the application of Roman names to them in a process known as the interpretatio romana. Thus we have mercury listed as the chief of gods and minerva following shortly after. In some cases, the original Celtic name of the divinity in question became a surname, but in many others, the original was lost.

Gavida (Gaiblm, Gaibhleen, Goibhleann)

Irish hero. Brother of cian and uncle of the hero lugh, Gavida fostered his nephew until he was old enough to meet his fate as the killer of his monstrous grandfather balor of the Evil Eye. Sometimes this figure is said to be identical to the smith god goibniu.

Gavrinis (Gavr’inis)

Breton mythological site. In the center of a small harbor off the coast of Morbihan in southern Brittany is an island upon which the fabulously engraved ritual chamber of Gavrinis is found. Far predating the Celts, the cave is linked by its spiral iconogra-phy—deeply incised carvings decorating more than a score of enormous granite uprights—to Ireland’s bru na boinne and by its megalithic rock architecture to Britain’s stonehenge. Although it is not possible to know for what purpose they were intended, such monuments are typically oriented toward some astronomical point; in the case of Gavrinis, the winter solstice sunrise, toward which it is oriented precisely.

Some have theorized that the rising sun, as it begins its rebirth toward summer on that day, may have been thought to revivify the bones placed within, of which traces have been found.

Like other monuments of the megalithic civilization, Gavrinis was probably known by the local Celtic peoples and may have been a ritual site for them, some 3,000 years after it was built. Other Breton megalithic sites appear in folklore as the place of otherworld happenings, so as was the case in Ireland, superstitious local lore may have protected such monuments long after their meaning was forgotten.

Gawain (Gawain of Orkney, Gawayne, Gavin, Gauvain, Gwalchmei)

Arthurian hero. Gawain is one of the best known of the knights of the round table who served the great king arthur. He was Arthur’s nephew, son of his half-sister morgause and king lot of Orkney, and was one of Arthur’s first supporters.

Hero of a famous early English romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1370 c.e.) by "the Pearl Poet," which like other Arthurian literature draws heavily on Celtic themes, Gawain was challenged by a monstrous Green Knight. The hero fought fiercely and beheaded the stranger, but the Green Knight returned for the combat exactly one year later. Meanwhile, the wife of his host Bercilak had attempted three times to seduce the chaste Gawain, with no success save that she left her girdle with him. Inexplicably, instead of returning the incriminating piece of underwear, Gawain hid it.

When the beheaded and reheaded giant Green Knight reappeared, he struck three times at Gawain, the third one a crippling wound as retaliation for hiding the girdle. Several Celtic themes are found in the romance, especially beheading (see head) and triplicity (see three). Some scholars have interpreted Gawain as a late version of the Celtic smith god goibniu, the Green Knight may be a literary counterpart to the British folkloric figure, the greenman.

Gawain is also known from the tale of rag-nell, a woman who had been bewitched so that she appeared ominously ugly. Beneath that terrifying exterior, however, Ragnell was a pure spirit who gained Gawain’s love. Upon their marriage, she confided her secret to him, telling him that she could only appear as a young maiden for part of each day. Did he prefer, she asked, that she be a beautiful woman in the daytime, when his friends could admire her, or at night, when he could enjoy her charms? Gawain wisely offered the choice back to her, whereupon she revealed the solution to the riddle, "What do women want?," which he had been charged with answering. Women, she told him, want to be given the chance to choose their own life. The spell that held her captive was then broken, she became a beautiful young woman again, and Ragnell and Gawain lived happily together thereafter.

Geali Dianvir

Irish hero. He was the eldest son of the king of the fir bolg, Irish invaders who may be mythological memories of early Celtic arrivals; his people were defeated by balor, king of the evil fomorians, who similarly may reflect historical indigenous peoples. After the battle, the defeated Fir Bolg sailed away from Ireland, returning to the mysterious land of Gallowna, where they attempted to recoup their strength.

From Gallowna, Geali Dianvir was sent back to repair the damage to his people’s reputation that Balor had dealt. When he arrived in Bantry, in western Co. Cork in the southwestern province of munster, Geali Dianvir found the Formorian queen surrounded by Balor’s men, who every night applied venom to their swords so that they were unbeatable in battle. The venom was obtained from a well into which the warriors plunged their weapons; the Fir Bolg hero decided to eliminate their advantage by turning it from poison to clear water. To do this, he poured 20 measures of the milk of the magical cow of abundance, the glas ghaibhleann, into the well. The Fir Bolg hero was then able to gain the advantage over Balor’s men and drive them to the outer reaches of the land.


Irish god. This obscure god is known only as the father of the beautiful goddess clidna and as the chief druid of the sea god, manannan mac lir.


Continental Celtic god. Identified by the Romans with their warrior divinity mars, this god appears in several inscriptions in lands inhabited both by Celts and by Germans, so it is unclear which culture gave rise to him.

Geis (geas, geiss, ges; pl., geasa, gessa)

Irish ritual vow. Magical vows or pledges were often required of kings and other heroes in Irish literature, apparently reflecting a real religious custom. In some cases, the reason for the geis is given, as when the king of tara, conaire, is instructed not to eat the flesh of birds, because his mother had been enchanted into that form at one point, making him kin to the birds. But more often the geasa seem frivolous, as with Conaire’s vow not to ride around Tara with his right shoulder to the sea, nor to let three red horsemen ride past him to the hostel of a red man, nor to be away from Tara more than eight consecutive nights.

Sometimes geasa are extraordinarily complicated, even exaggerated, as with diarmait’s vow never to refuse a woman who came to him neither in the day nor at night, neither on horseback nor on foot, neither clothed nor naked. Comic as they may seem, the geasa were deeply serious, so much so that breaking such a vow meant death. Geasa were not chosen by the man making the vow—for it was invariably a man—but were imposed by druids or by women, the latter often substituting for the goddess of sovereignty.

Kings were especially subject to sacred geasa, which provided a mechanism to evaluate their integrity (see kingship). The land’s fertility depended upon the king’s righteousness; thus a king who broke his geasa as Conaire did caused privation when the land became sterile. Heroes too were pledged to avoid taboo places, people, and foods, or to satisfy certain peculiar demands, their strength and even continued life depending upon their performance. Geasa are wound into the plot of many ancient Celtic legends and romances.

Gelorwydd Welsh hero. This obscure figure is named in some texts as a warrior who bathed the dying on battlefields with his own blood, bringing them great peace.


Cosmological concept. An ancient Celtic king faced many requirements or sacred vows (see geis), but the most important was generosity. An ungenerous king, such as the half-fomorian bres turned out to be, would be driven from his throne by satires and might even die miserably in punishment for his greed and stinginess. The traditional expectation of royal generosity was translated in Celtic lands into a general requirement of hospitality, especially to strangers. In post-Celtic times, belief that the fairies would punish the ungenerous kept alive the priority given to this value.

Genius cucullatus (pl., genii cucullati)

Continental and British Celtic god(s). Named for a hood (in Latin, cucullus) attached to a cloak, these "hooded spirits" are found across Celtic lands on the Continent and in Britain; in the former, they appear singularly, while in Britain the cucullati are invariably triplets. Although their exact function and meaning is not established, their form suggests that they were spirits of fertility, for they look like a group of small phalluses; in some sculptures, indeed, removing the hood reveals not the head of a man but that of a phallus.

In Britain the genii cucullati were depicted as dwarfs holding eggs, further emphasizing their connection to fertility. The distribution pattern of these sculptures is identical to that of the mother goddesses called the deae matres, with whom they often appear; sometimes the goddess they accompany is named cuda.

Genius loci (pl., genii locii)

Continental Celtic and British god(s). This Latin phrase, meaning "spirit of the place," refers to the divinities that embody and are embodied within special natural places: mountains, wells, waterfalls, even prominent glacial boulders. The Celts saw nature as filled with divinity, each god or goddess being connected with a specific site; for this reason, few divine names are found in the Celtic world more than once. rivers and mountains tended to be seen as goddesses; ancient trees and some watercourses as gods.

Such place-deities had multiple functions, guiding fertility, prosperity, and death within their region. With Roman settlement, names of the invading gods were affixed to the native ones—or, in some cases, the now-unnamed native divinity was subsumed into the Roman god (see interpretatio romana). apollo and minerva and mercury stood in for dozens, even hundreds, of specific place-identified Celtic nature gods and goddesses. Because altars to unnamed deities of place were simply carved with "genius loci," many specific names have been lost.

Such altars typically bore emblems of abundance and fertility like the cornucopia, the turret crown, and the PATERA or offering plate.

Gentle Annie (Gentle Annis)

Scottish folk-loric figure. A supernatural hag with blue-black skin, Gentle Annie was the weather spirit who brought raw winds down Cromarthy Firth in Scotland. Her name, which is clearly a flattering and mollifying one, has been connected to the ancient goddess name anu; her appearance and personality resemble the cailleach.


Irish folkloric figure. This giant from Co. Mayo had his palace on Downpatrick Head, locally called Dun Geodruisge. He stole cattle from a powerful witch who cursed him, so that his palace broke off from the mainland, sending the thieving giant out to sea.

Gereint (Keraint, Gereint fab Erbin)

Welsh hero. With his wife enid, this Welsh hero is described as presenting the perfect model of the loving couple. Yet their legend is convoluted at best and their relationship hardly seems ideal. Described as cousin to king arthur, Gereint won Enid’s hand through service to her kingly father. After their marriage, he devoted himself to leisurely pursuits with her, neglecting his kingdom until both his subjects and Enid herself began to complain. Rather than listening to the criticism, Gereint punished Enid cruelly for repeating comments about his unworthiness to rule, even suspecting that her actions were an indication that she had been unfaithful.

Gereint then set out to prove the rumors wrong, almost dying in an attempt to prove his manly strength. He dragged Enid along, demanding that she remain completely silent. She did not, for she kept seeing disasters on the horizon; he ignored her, causing himself great trouble. Finally, however, they came to the castle of owein. There, ignoring not only Enid’s warnings but those of his host, he attempted to win at an enchanted game, held in a court surrounded by severed heads. Approaching a maiden sitting within the court, Gereint was assaulted by her protector, a fierce knight. In the ensuing fight, Gereint proved himself, killing the knight and ending the violent games forever. Thereafter, he reconciled with his loyal wife Enid.

Geroid Iarla (Gerald, Earl of Desmond; the Red Earl)

Irish hero. When Maurice, the Earl of Desmond in southwestern munster, saw the beautiful fairy queen aine swimming in the form of a swan at the mouth of the River Comog that flows into enchanted lough gur, he fell hopelessly in love with her. The only way to claim such a swan maiden was to steal her cloak, which Maurice did. Thus did Aine come to live with him and to bear their child, the next earl, Geroid.

Maintaining a relationship with a fairy bride, however, meant living with the prohibitions and taboos she set down. Aine required that Maurice never show surprise at anything their son might do, but the earl forgot himself when, at a banquet, Geroid leaped into a bottle and out again. The boy and his mother immediately disappeared into the lake—or perhaps Geroid transformed himself into the goose that swam by at that moment. Every seven years on a moonlit night, Geroid rides forth from Lough Gur on a white horse.


Folkloric figure. Because the other-world and the land of the dead blend together in the Celtic mind, it is difficult to distinguish the ghosts of dead humans from those diminished divinities called the fairies. Often the two groups of beings were described as frequenting the same magical parts of the landscape (bogs, lakes, and islands); they had roughly the same habits of life; and ghosts, like fairies, could take humans away with them to the Otherworld.

Not all people became ghosts, but only those who suffered an interruption of the normal course of life, such as a young mother who died in childbirth and was concerned for the safety of her child; such an unsettled soul could come back to haunt house and family. Elders who died after a full life sometimes returned as well, however, taking a pipe by the fireside and otherwise keeping up the activities of a long settled life; this seems to be stirred more by habit than by desire to affect the lives of the living.

Those who died violent deaths could sometimes be seen haunting the location of their demise, as was the case when a headless ghost appeared in a small west Mayo town; such ghosts could be sent away with holy water or blessed candles. Ghosts appeared not only singly but en masse, as when the entire crew of a ship that went down at sea appeared just before another storm to warn their erstwhile fellows. Such gentle ghosts were the exception; more commonly, ghosts attempted to lure the living into the grave with them.

Giant (giantess)

Folkloric figure. The fact that huge rocks, bigger than anything that could be readily moved by humans, were deposited across the islands of Ireland and Britain by retreating glaciers meant that the landscape suggested huge beings powerful enough to build the other landscape features. Common tales tell of gigantic women who drop boulders from their aprons and of feuding giants who throw the boulders at each other.

Giant figures of men and animals are found carved into the chalk hills of southern England; sites like the long man of Wilmington and the cerne abbas giant in Dorset that show large male figures are locally said to be the outlines drawn around giants killed on the hillsides. The date of origin of these figures is unknown, so it is difficult to say whether this represents a survival of a Celtic belief. Other English folklore similarly refers to giants who had to be slain in order to make the countryside safe for settlement; the hero Tom Hickathrift of the Norfolk marshes was said to have killed the Giant of Smeeth. Although most giants were threatening to humans, some of the race had positive qualities; Jack o’ Legs from Herefordshire was a robin hood character who redistributed the wealth of the local rich to the area’s poor.

In Scotland the Great Cave (or Cave of Raitts) in Inverness was said to have been built by a giantess who carved the 70-foot cavern from the hillside while her companion giants quarried the stone used to prop up the cave’s sides. Such landscape-forming legends are frequent in Scotland, where we find the story of giants who sought to marry the daughters of a human knight; the girls were saved by men who fought with a giant hag who had the power to turn them to stone. Her curses could be lifted and the petrified returned to life, however, with the water from a well on the Island of the Big Women, a mythical land that appears in many Scottish folktales, apparently a specifically giant-occupied part of the otherworld.

In Wales we find the giantess Mol Walbee, who found a pebble in her shoe and tossed it to the ground, where it still stands as a huge boulder in a churchyard. She seems to be a form of the pre-Celtic cailleach, credited throughout the islands as the creator of landscapes. A woman of gigantic proportions, the Cailleach formed mountains whenever she let slip pebbles from her apron. Not all earth-forming giants were female, however; in Cornwall there are stories of hurling matches between groups of male giants, their thrown pebbles forming mountains. In Ireland too we find the giant’s causeway, a monumental series of basalt slabs that form what seem to be steps out to sea, said to be the creation of giant carvers.

The connection of giants with the formation of the landscape, as well as texts that describe them as resident before human occupation in various Celtic lands, suggests that they are recollections of ancient divinities displaced by later invaders or immigrants. Similarly, the naming of prominent hills for such non-Celtic divinities as the Cailleach suggests that she and her giant kin were honored by pre-Celtic people whose religious visions were accommodated and absorbed by the Celts.

Invaders often describe the divinities of the conquered as monstrous, and giants like the fomorians of Ireland were said to occupy lands desired by historical people, who had to eliminate them in order to gain access to the land’s wealth. In his History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth said that the first king of Britain (then called Albion), Brutus, arrived to find only a few inhabitants, all of them giants, including the monstrous gog, who was defeated by the heroic wrestler Corineus; an image of the battle can still be seen in London’s Guildhall, where the figures are inaccurately named Gog and Magog.

The most famous literary vestige of this Celtic folkloric tradition is Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, in which the eponymous hero finds himself variously a giant among tiny people and a mite among giants.

Giant’s Causeway

Irish mythological site. One of the great natural wonders of the province of ulster is a strangely shaped mass of basalt rocks near Portrush, Co. Coleraine. Folklore claims that finn mccool, the diminished version of the great mythological hero fionn mac cumhaill, killed the Scottish giant who built the step-shaped rocks as a first step in his invasion of Ireland.

Giants’ Dance

British mythological site. This name is given to stonehenge in the geographical commentary of Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1136 c.e. According to many legends, stone circles were formed when witches or other supernatural creatures danced on a Christian holiday (often Sunday) and were turned to stone for such frivolity; the enormity of the trilithons of Stonehenge may have given rise to the idea that the petrified beings were giants.

Gile (Gilla)

Irish heroine or goddess. The lake beside the small and picturesque western Irish city of Sligo, Lough Gill, is named for this princess or diminished goddess, daughter of an otherwise unknown father named Romra. Gile was bathing in the waters of a spring when Omra, apparently her lover, approached. Unable to bear his looking upon her nakedness, Gile ducked her head under the water and accidentally drowned.

Her foster mother, finding the girl’s body, began to weep so vigorously that the spring and her tears joined to form the "vast and stormy lake," as the place-name poetry, the DINDSHEN-CHAS, describes Lough Gill. Romra and Omra then fell into battle, each killing the other; burial cairns are said to have been erected over them, although the text is unclear as to whether those are the renowned ones atop nearby Carns Hill. Given that the names of father and lover differ only by one letter, they may be connected figures or twins. Like much of Ireland’s place-name poetry, the story of Lough Gill seems a fragmentary myth dislodged from its explanatory context.

Gilfaethwy (Gilvaethwy)

Welsh hero. Violent brother of the Welsh poet-hero gwydion and son of the mother goddess don, Gilfaethwy conceived a lust for the virgin goewin who served his uncle, king math, as ceremonial footholder. According to the Welsh compilation of mythology, the MABINOGION, Goewin did not respond to Gilfaethwy’s desire. Refusing to attend to her refusal, he assaulted and raped Goewin. In punishment Gilfaethwy was turned into a deer, pig, and wolf, consecutively.

Gillagreine (Giolla Greine)

Irish goddess or heroine. Although relatively obscure, this ancient figure has left her name across the landscape of east Co. Clare in Ireland. In despair at learning that, although her father was human, her mother was a sunbeam, Gillagreine leaped into the water of Lough Greine or Lough Graney ("lake of the sun"), floated down to Daire Greine ("sun’s oak grove"), and finally came to rest at Tuam Greine or Tuamgraney ("the sun’s tomb"). She may have been an early sun goddess of the region.

Gille Dubh (Ghillie Dhu)

Scottish folk-loric figure. In relatively recent times—at the end of the 18th century—this fairy man appeared in the region around Loch a Druing in the Scottish Highlands. A rather seedy-looking person, he wore nothing but moss and leaves, and his unkempt black hair fell about him like a cloak. He was a silent, kindly sort, ready to rescue the lost and care for those in need. Nonetheless he was made the object of sport by some local lairds, who decided to use the poor fairy for target practice. He made himself scarce; a full night’s hunting did not scare him up, nor was he ever seen afterward.

Gillian (Jillian)

British folkloric figure and site. In England, mazes called Gillian Bowers were cut into turf. In springtime the young men ran races through these turf mazes, while a woman impersonating the otherwise unknown folkloric figure Gillian was "imprisoned" at the center of the maze and "freed" by the race’s winner. Such mazes are also found in Scandinavian countries, where they go by the unexplained name of Troy Towns. A ritual of freeing the sun maiden from her winter captivity seems implied by the game. A goddess named Gillian, perhaps ruling the springtime, may have given her name to these sites.

Giona (Giona mac Lugha)

Irish hero. Despite being a grandson of the great hero fionn mac cumhaill, Giona was a lazy fellow and could not control his warriors, who found him an uninspiring leader. Fionn took the young man under his tutelage and formed him into a great hero of the fianna.

Glam duenn

Irish ritual posture. When a bard or a druid wanted to cast a truly effective curse in ancient Ireland, he or she would assume a particular position: standing on one leg, holding out one arm, and closing one eye. This fearsome position intensified the power of the verbal curse so that its power was impossible to avoid. The hag who destroyed king conaire, in the story of da derga’s hostel, assumed the glam duenn before she cursed him for breaking his sacred vows (see GEIS).


Folkloric motif. A glamour is a spell, cast by a fairy or a witch (occasionally, a gypsy), that caused humans to imagine things that are not there and to see things as they are not. Originally a Scottish word, the word passed into international usage stripped of its magical meaning and now indicates only fascinating personal attractiveness. In the past, glamour was never sought after but was rather to be avoided or broken—the latter by using fairy ointment or holding up to one’s eyes a bit of four-leafed clover or shamrock (which may have been the main ingredient in fairy ointment). The clover’s power would permit the viewer to see reality rather than fairy fantasy; thus a visitor to fairyland would see a miserable cave rather than a gorgeous ballroom, and the people there would be old and wizened rather than firm and young.


Irish heroine. A minor figure in one of the tales of the heroic fianna, this woman assisted their leader fionn mac cumhaill in escaping from the imprisonment of a giant named dryantore.

Glas Ghaibhleann

(Glas Ghaibhnann, Glas Gavlen, Glas Gownach, Glas Gainach, Glas Gaunach; Fuwch Leathwen Lefrith) Irish mythological figure. Irish folklore and mythology tells of a great cow whose milk was so plentiful that it could feed multitudes; because of the 100% cream content, its milk made copious butter as well. The cow was so strong that she could wander through three of Ireland’s four provinces in a single day; thus place-names across the land (usually beginning with Glas, as in Glasnevin, although also occurring in such forms as Knockglas, "mountain of the Glas") bear testimony to her passage. (Her name became a common noun for spring or stream, so at times it is difficult to distinguish the original intent of such place-names.) As she traveled, she gave milk to anyone who needed it, filling whatever vessel they carried, no matter how large or small. It is possible that the Glas is an ancient image of the Irish land itself, for Ireland is occasionally called Druimin Donn Dilis, "the faithful brown white-backed cow."

The Glas did not have to have a calf in order to give milk. Indeed, as much as five years could pass without the cow calving, yet her milk flowed unceasingly. Some stories say that she was a fairy beast, belonging to the king of the Land Under Wave or the otherworld; other stories suggest she was the goddess bo find, who took the form of a white cow.

Usually the cow was said to be guarded by a smith named Gaivnin Gow, Gavidin, or simply Gavin; in Ireland, the smith was said to live among the rolling hills of Co. Cavan. The smith kept the Glas’s halter, to which she came unfailingly every night; some legends say that the Glas was the smith’s enchanted sister or stepsister. In Ireland place-names associated with the cow are often found near sites named for the smith. Some versions of the story name the smith god goibniu as the owner of the Glas.

Many legends center on plots set in motion by greedy people who wished to steal the Glas for their exclusive enrichment, but she invariably escaped or was freed, bringing her abundance back to the people. In one story the Glas was confined by a man within Glen Columkille in Co. Donegal, but she levitated into the air and, clearing the high ridges around the glen, disappeared into the sky. Since that time, legend claims, there has been no free milk in Ireland.

Other legends claim that a wicked woman tried to milk the Glas into a sieve and, angered, the cow disappeared from earth. Another tale, from the rocky region called the Burren, says that someone tried to milk the Glas into a swallow-hole called Poll na Leamhnachta ("hole of sweet milk"), but when even the Glas’s immeasurable milk could not fill the endless cavity, the exhausted cow disappeared, and she has never again been seen on the Burren, previously her favorite pasturage.

The Glas appears in Britain, Scotland, and Wales under the name of the dun cow, whose mythological background is made clear in descriptions of her impossible abundance. As in Ireland, the British Dun Cow was killed by greed: A witch tried to milk her into a mesh, killing the miraculous beast; a whale rib in Kirkham, Lancashire, was long said to have been one of the Dun Cow’s bones. In Wales the cow was called Fuwch Leathwen Lefrith; she wandered the country, generously giving forth milk until she reached a valley, Towry, where the residents saw her as potential steak-and-kidney pie. Before they could slaughter her, she disappeared, taking all her abundance with her.

The cosmological and cosmic significance of this magical cow is reinforced by scholars who trace the motif to the Indo-European mythologies of India, where we find cloud cows who rain milk down upon earth and who, according to the Rig Veda, were stolen by the demon Vritra, who wished to bring drought and famine to earth. This connection of the cow not only with milk but with water is found in the figure of the river-and cow-goddess boand, after whom the River Boyne is named. The connection between cow and river is further reinforced by descriptions of the cow’s meandering course across the land, never traveling less than six miles a day.

The Glas figures prominently in the story of the magical conception of the hero lugh, grandson and killer of the monstrous fomorian king balor of the Evil Eye. After Balor had been driven to the periphery of Ireland by the fierce warriors of the fir bolg, he reigned from a frightening fortress on Tory Island off Co. Donegal. Opposite him on the mainland, at Druin na Teine, lived the smith with his magical cow. Balor conceived a powerful desire to own the cow—thus removing it from Ireland, where it nourished the people—but the smith watched it incessantly, only taking his eyes off it when he worked at the forge; while he was working, the Glas was closely guarded by a man variously named cian, MacInally, or Fin son of Ceanfaeligh. He had to follow along behind the Glas—never in front of her—as she meandered through the island, keeping up with her strenuous pace. She moved so fast and so far that it was no wonder that Cian finally grew inattentive and took a nap.

At that point Balor struck. He stole the Glas and packed her aboard a boat that sailed for Tory Island, stopping en route at the little island called Inishbofin (Inis Bo Find, "island of the white cow"), where she drank from a well called Tober na Glaise ("gray cow well"); when they landed at Tory it was at Port na Glaise ("gray cow port").

The smith, furious to find his magical cow gone, threatened Cian with death unless she was returned in three days. So Cian traveled to Balor’s realm, where the king gave him impossible tasks to fulfill in order to earn back the cow. While there, however, Cian spied Balor’s beautiful daughter eithne, trapped in a high tower because Balor feared the prophecy that her son would kill him. Balor reasoned that, if Eithne never saw a man, she could not bear a child, thus providing her father with immortality.

Disguised as a woman, Cian slunk into Eithne’s lodgings and seduced her; the child she bore was Lugh, who was later to kill Balor in battle, fulfilling the prophecy. Cian returned the cow to the smith but died at Balor’s hands in retaliation for his seduction of Eithne.

The cow of abundance is connected in myth and legend to various figures, most commonly brigit, who as Ireland’s St. Brigit was said to have a cow that gave copious milk and filled the abbey’s storehouses with butter. This connection of Glas and Brigit extends to Britain; a sculpture of the saint as milkmaid can be found in glastonbury.

Glass-ben (Glass)

Irish heroine. The nurse of the hero oscar, she died when she learned that her fosterling was killed in battle.

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